The View from the Zoo

Lately, I’ve been occupied with an internship at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C. With the current federal shutdown, I can’t go in to work, so it seems like an ideal time to share some of what I’ve learned recently about the National Zoo. If you live in the D.C. area, you’ve probably heard about the giant panda cub born in late August. Maybe you’ve dropped in to watch Mei Xiang and the cub on the Panda Cam. Aside from providing our daily dose of cuteness, however, what happens at the National Zoo? What makes zoos valuable?

1. Zoos are public education institutions. People visit zoos to see unusual animals, and seeing the diversity of life up close is a powerful way to inspire interest in the natural world. Zoos encourage kids to explore biology, ecology, conservation, and science in general. Who wouldn’t want to learn more about apes after watching the orangutans travel across the cable “O-line” thirty feet above the ground? With the help of the animals, keepers, and volunteers, zoos are excellent teaching tools. The interpretive signs at the National Zoo are very creative (I’m particularly fond of the giant, moveable, elephant-shaped signs in the Elephant Community Center, complete with pull-tabs and visual aids), and I like seeing exhibition signs that are engaging and kid-friendly. If visitors have any other questions about the animals, they can just ask a volunteer interpreter! Many enthusiastic, knowledgeable people donate their time to help visitors understand more about the animals, so if you’re curious about how the herons get along with the sea lions, or why a tire is hanging in the elephant enclosure, don’t hesitate to ask.

Every day, animal keepers present over a dozen demonstrations with animals throughout the zoo. If you want to learn more about sea lions, sloth bears, elephants, or any other zoo critter – or if you just want to get a glimpse into zoo operations – I cannot recommend these demos enough! I’ve seen a few of them in my short time at the National Zoo, and I always learn something new about the individual animals, their species, or the Zoo as a whole. Did you know that training is a very important part of maintaining the health and well-being of zoo animals? Whether it’s training a sloth bear to open his mouth for a dental checkup or teaching the sea lions to retrieve foreign objects that fall into their aquarium, training is essential to health care. Training and demonstrations also tie into animal enrichment by providing challenging activities that keep animals engaged and mentally active within their environment.

Zoos are wonderful places for learning about animals and inspiring interest in biology. But what happens behind the scenes at a zoo?

2. Zoos are research institutions. Just as the Smithsonian museums have behind-the-scenes research programs, the National Zoo has an associated institution called the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) headquartered in Front Royal, Virginia. Scientists at both the SCBI and the Zoo itself research topics ranging from animal physiology and medicine to behavior and conservation.

Research breeds knowledge, and knowledge can be used to solve problems. The National Zoo focuses on reproduction and veterinary medicine, two issues that are very important to the conservation mission of the Zoo. Reproduction research is essential for endangered species breeding programs, and good veterinary medicine keeps Zoo animals healthy. Other research topics such as behavior and physiology are important for broader conservation issues. For example, take a look at this recent study on whooping crane learning and migration. Knowing more about these endangered birds helps researchers promote successful migration, and ultimately provides a better chance at this species’ survival in the wild.

Speaking of conservation…

3. Zoos are conservation institutions. “Charismatic macrofauna” such as cheetahs and pandas are the most recognizable faces of the Zoo, but the Zoo doesn’t forget less celebrated clades such as frogs and salamanders. Endangered species depend considerably on research, breeding, and conservation programs at zoos. As a high-profile institution, the National Zoo draws eyes to environmental issues and threats, and to the endangered species hurt by such problems.

The Zoo also contributes to educating young conservationists. The Zoo and its associated institutions offer undergraduate and graduate courses, internships, and fellowships for students interested in conservation issues. The Zoo’s capacity as a research institution also lends itself to its role as a conservation institution. For example, researchers connected with SCBI published findings on how habitat corridors help maintain genetic diversity in wildcat populations in India. Conservation research is essential for developing informed decisions on environmental policy.

I highly recommend visiting the National Zoo once it reopens. Pleasant temperatures and smaller crowds make autumn the perfect time of year to visit, and many animals are more active in cooler weather. Plus, whatever your age or area of expertise, you’re bound to learn something new at the Zoo.


Book Look: The Seven Sins of Memory

Memory is a funny thing. There are times when an important errand slips my mind, but I can’t get that one song out of my head. Distant memories fade with time, but some experiences can haunt people for years. Strangest of all, people can – and frequently do – develop memories of things that never happened at all.

These various peculiarities are the focus of The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers. Harvard psychology professor Daniel L. Schacter takes the reader through what he classifies as the seven “sins” of memory. What are these sins? What troubles do they cause us? Could these sins help as well as hurt?

Sin 1: Transience. “Hmmm, that was a while ago, and my memory is a little vague…”

Memories fade as time passes. Recent events stand out sharply in our minds, but details become hazy after a few hours or days pass by. Schacter argues that the memory system tends to forget old information because more recent information – such as where you parked your car this morning, or where you found your last meal – is more likely to be important. From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes little sense for our memories to retain useless information.

Sin 2: Absent-mindedness. “Now where did I put my keys? They were in my hand a moment ago…”

Things slip our minds all the time. The brain can’t focus on too many things at once, so we relegate our attention to the present task, and sometimes end up forgetting things we wanted to do in the future. As any maker of to-do lists knows, the best way to avoid absent-mindedness is to leave reminders to jog our memories at a later time. However, this isn’t as helpful with other types of absent-mindedness, such as when a momentary distraction prevents important information from being encoded in our memories in the first place. For instance, if I’m absorbed in thinking about that to-do list as I walk through the front door, I might never notice where I put the keys.

Sin 3: Blocking. “Oh, what’s that word? It’s on the tip of my tongue!”

We’re all familiar with the maddening sensation of knowing a fact, only to find it just out of reach when we need it. Interestingly, a number of different languages use the phrase “on the tip of the tongue” or similar; the sensation is familiar to people all over the world. Schacter argues that this type of blocking occurs when our mental link between the concept and the word is too tenuous, particularly when we haven’t used the information for a while. More perniciously, blocking can also take the form of repression and even amnesia, when people try to cope with unwanted memories by pushing them away.

Sin 4: Misattribution. “I love J.K. Rowling – The Hunger Games is my favorite series!”

Surprisingly often, people confuse or conflate one entity with another in their recollections. They mix up two people, misremember the context of an event, or forget the source of a piece of information. Misattribution is partly why eyewitness testimony is terribly unreliable. Witnesses might remember a suspect, but mistake when they saw him, where, and what he was doing; this can lead to serious errors, like accusing an innocent bystander of a crime.

Sin 5: Suggestibility. “Brown hair? I don’t think so. Well, maybe. I think he might have … yes, his hair was definitely brown!”

Outside influence can also influence how we remember events, which is another reason not to implicitly trust eyewitness testimony. The slightest leading question can alter what a person remembers, even if the person recognizes it as a false suggestion. People may vividly remember something that is false – even though they previously stated that it never happened.

Sin 6: Bias. “I knew it all along.”

We view the past through the lens of our current knowledge and feelings. Hindsight, as the saying goes, is 20/20, and if we know the outcome of an event, we think it should have been obvious beforehand. In general, we tend to remember our past selves as more similar to our current selves than we actually were; sometimes, however, people mentally exaggerate how unhappy they used to be, making themselves feel more content by comparison.

Sin 7: Persistence. “I can’t get it out of my head!”

Some memories are less subject than usual to the sin of transience, and some experiences will not fade away despite a strong desire to forget. This can range from the benign (can’t get that song out of your head?) to the debilitating (such as PTSD), but unsurprisingly, highly emotional memories tend to be the most persistent.

The sins of memory run the gamut from annoying and commonplace to serious and even ruinous. And yet, at the end of the book, Schacter argues that these qualities are virtues in disguise.

Schacter contends that all of these memory problems – troublesome though they can be – are aspects or byproducts of a memory system that evolved to be efficient. On the whole, humans excel at calling to mind the facts we need, while ignoring those we don’t. What would be the use of devoting energy to forever remember information that we will almost certainly never use again? How could we function if we could not distinguish relevant from irrelevant? We don’t always appreciate it, but our memories serve us well much more often than they let us down.

The Seven Sins of Memory is an interesting exploration of the quirks of memory. Schacter discusses the troubling failures of our memory, and demonstrates that the qualities we think of as flaws are integral to the function of an efficient, powerful system shaped by natural selection.

But I still reserve the right to be annoyed when, for the life of me, I can’t remember where I put my keys.

Schacter, Daniel L. The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers.” Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company (2001).

Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code – Bio on the Mall, Part 3

Before I left the National Museum of Natural History last Thursday, I stopped in at one of the temporary exhibits, Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code. This is a fascinating exhibit on what genes and genomes are, what they do, and their growing role in our society. It begins by teaching some basic genetics, and then moves on to subjects like the human genome project, personalized medicine, and the ethics of genome science.

Like the Human Origins Hall, which I talked about in Monday’s post, Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code is a very interactive exhibit. There are buttons, touchscreens, and projector screens that allow visitors to explore questions on genomic biology, ethics, and medicine. At one station, visitors can participate in an opinion poll on genome ethics. Do you think corporations should be allowed to profit from an individual’s genetic information? What are your opinions on expensive personalized medicine? It is this intersection between science and society that makes the exhibit so interesting – not only does it teach visitors about genetics, but it also relates that science to their lives.

This exhibit is fun for individuals and families who are interested in learning what a genome is and why it’s important. Children too young to understand the more sophisticated aspects of the exhibit will still enjoy the Genome Zone, an activities and crafts section for kids. You can also look up special events at the exhibit. For example, for a couple of hours tomorrow (Thursday, July 25) you can visit the Genome Zone and talk with Dr. Sean Brady, an entomologist who studies the lives of bees and ants.

Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code will be at the National Museum of Natural History until September 1st, after which it goes on tour around the United States as a traveling exhibit. If you can’t make it to D.C. or one of the exhibit’s future sites, you can learn more at the exhibit web site.

Have you visited Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code? What do you think about the role of genetics in society? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Human Origins Hall – Bio on the Mall, Part 2

Before I left the U.S. Botanic Gardens last Thursday, I took a stroll through the rooms of cacti, banana trees, jungle plants, and my personal favorite, the orchids. After taking one last look at the corpse flower (it’s blooming now, by the way!), I headed over to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. I’ve been there many times, as a visitor and a former intern, but it always manages to draw me back again.

First, I looked into one of the newer permanent exhibits, the Human Origins Hall. This exhibit takes visitors on an exploration from early human evolution all the way to the challenges that modern humans face. I’m no anthropologist, but the exhibit distills what is clearly a large body of information into a few key concepts: humans have evolved over time, with changes in their appearance and behavior, and we continue to evolve today.

I admit, I’m one of those people who loves to comb through every word of an exhibit, but you don’t have to do that to enjoy the Human Origins Hall. The displays are interactive and engaging – there are sliding tabs to compare early and modern humans, touch-screens that answer questions on evolution, and even a “photo booth” that shows you what you would look like as an ancient human.

For a couple of hours while I was at the museum, Dr. Briana Pobiner, an anthropologist with the Smithsonian Institution, stood at a small cart in the middle of the Human Origins Hall. She was part of a museum program called “The Scientist Is In.” For a couple hours on certain days, a scientist stands in an exhibit hall, answering visitor questions and discussing their area of research – in Dr. Pobiner’s case, early human diets. I think this is a great program! It gives researchers the chance to share their enthusiasm with visitors, and to showcase research that all too often remains backstage at the Smithsonian.

I listened to Dr. Pobiner answer a lot of interesting questions on topics ranging from early human scavengers, to animal and plant domestication, to the modern “paleo diet” fad. Did you realize how much intelligence and resourcefulness it requires to be a successful scavenger? Or that many animal predators can’t break open bones for marrow, but humans can – and that marrow is an excellent source of high-fat nutrition? And it turns out that the real “paleo diet” was extremely diverse – as you might imagine, populations in different places and different situations had widely varying diets.

If you’re interested, you can look up the next “The Scientist Is In” event, or attend one of the other upcoming special events. For instance, on this Friday, the 26th of July, the Human Origins Hall will hold an open public dialogue on “how scientific and religious organizations can cooperate on the public understanding of human evolution.” Sounds pretty interesting!

The Human Origins Hall is visually interesting and informative; I recommend a visit. If you can’t make it to D.C., then you can always take a look at the exhibit web page.

Before I left the museum, I stopped in at one of the museum’s temporary exhibits. I’ll talk more about that next time!

Have you visited the National Museum of Natural History or the Botanic Gardens? Do you have a favorite place to visit on the Mall? Leave a comment below!

The Corpse Flower is Blooming!

On Thursday, I spent the day on the National Mall, where there are quite a few biology-related things worth a visit – even if it means braving the Washington, D.C. summer heat.

My first stop was at the U.S. Botanic Garden where – if you haven’t heard – a “corpse flower” is blooming! The titan arum, Amorphophallus titanum, is also known as the corpse flower or the stinky plant because it emits the scent of rotting meat to attract its pollinators. How enticing! So why is this exciting news? Well, the corpse flower can go for years or even decades without blooming (this particular one is seven years old, and this is its first flower), but when it does bloom, it produces the largest inflorescence in the world. The flower (technically an “inflorescence,” since the bloom contains multiple small flowers) can grow up to 12 feet tall!

Alas, when I arrived on Thursday, it was still just beginning to unfold. As of now, the bud is still sitting unopened, towering over camera-toting visitors like me. The flower should bloom in the next few days, however. In fact, you can visit the Botanic Garden’s “Return of the Titan” web page to watch a live-streaming video of the corpse flower as it unfolds! On the website, you can also find more information on this amazing plant.

After I left the Botanic Garden, I moved on to visit a few exhibits at my favorite place on the Mall, the National Museum of Natural History – but that’s a post for another day.

The Other Father of Evolution

In my last post, I talked about how plant domestication emerged in multiple places at once. In this post, I’ll talk about a much more recent scientific advancement that also occurred to more than one person – evolution by natural selection!

Charles Darwin usually gets the lion’s share of the credit, but someone else came up with the same idea independently – Alfred Russel Wallace.

Wallace was a working-class scientist and collector of biological specimens, living in a time when most European scientists came from the upper reaches of society. In 1858, while on a collecting expedition in the Malay Archipelago, Wallace thought of the idea of evolution by natural selection. He outlined the basics of it in an essay, “On the tendency of varieties to depart infinitely from the original type,” and sent a copy of it to Darwin – Wallace knew that Darwin worked on evolution, but he didn’t know that Darwin had already conceived of the idea of natural selection about 20 years earlier.

Darwin recognized that Wallace’s essay might endanger his scientific priority on the idea he had been working on for the last two decades (but had yet to publish). However, he was unwilling to rush to publication now; he didn’t want to cheat Wallace out of getting credit. Conflicted, Darwin consulted his scientific friend Sir Charles Lyell, who – along with fellow scientist J. D. Hooker – decided to take matters into their own hands. They presented the idea of natural selection to the Linnean Society of London, using papers by both Darwin and Wallace, ensuring that both officially received equal credit for the idea.

Wallace went on to have a distinguished career, and during his lifetime, he was considered one of the greatest scientists of the era. So why do we now remember Darwin as the father of evolutionary biology, while most people have probably never heard of Wallace? For one thing, Wallace’s essay only outlined the bare bones of evolution by natural selection, whereas Darwin had been gathering evidence and working out the details for 20 years. The following year, when Darwin finally published all of this in his most famous book, On the Origin of Species, he was establishing the foundation for evolutionary theory, the unifying principle of all biology. (As a side note, I highly recommend taking a look at the book – Darwin was incredibly insightful, despite knowing nothing of genetics, DNA, or any of the other scientific discoveries of the last 150 years.)

Wallace also continued investigations into evolution, though he disagreed with Darwin on a number of points. For one thing, Wallace believed that human intelligence could not possibly have arisen through natural selection; he was also an avid explorer of spiritualism, which was popular in Victorian England. He was a prolific writer on topics ranging from science to spiritualism to social issues, and became a well-known public figure during his lifetime.

People are still debating over whether Wallace or Darwin truly deserves more credit for the idea of natural selection. However, I think I can state pretty firmly that Alfred Russel Wallace was an exceptional scientist who deserves more attention than he gets from the modern world.


Shermer, Michael. “In Darwin’s Shadow: The Life and Science of Alfred Russel Wallace: A biographical Study on the Psychology of History.” Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. This book, by noted skeptic Michael Shermer, is an interesting look at Wallace’s life as a scientist, public figure, and individual, as well as an exploration into the study of biography.